ON WHAT DO WE LEAN?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)]

pickerel weedWhile pondering an important decision, I realized I was trying to figure it out on my own rather than taking it to God. Relying on my own perception and trusting in my wisdom, however, is what got me into my dilemma in the first place. Based on some of the truly stupid choices I’ve made when leaning on my own understanding, it’s only through God’s grace that my life is not a total disaster.

It all started with Adam and Eve who, after listening to the serpent’s advice, leaned on their own understanding of God’s prohibition about that one tree. Doubting God’s goodness, they thought the fruit would make them as wise as God and foolishly took those bites rather than check with Him. Not trusting God’s promise of descendants to Abraham, Sarah looked to her own solution and gave Hagar to her husband. What part of “Don’t look back or stop anywhere!” did Lot’s wife fail to understand when she looked back at Sodom? It was leaning on their own understanding that made Aaron mold a golden calf and sacrifice burnt offerings to it or Saul spare Agag and take the best of the sheep, goats, cattle, and plunder from the Amalekites. There were grievous consequences to all those decisions to lean on themselves rather than God!

Consider the Israelites who made it through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan by following God’s plan. Before crossing the Jordan, Moses sent twelve scouts on a reconnaissance mission to determine the lay of the land and the region’s agriculture. They weren’t supposed to assess the people or determine if they would enter Canaan—that was a given because God promised Israel both the land and their victory over its residents. But, when the scouts returned with reports of giants, the Israelites leaned on their own understanding rather than trusting God—an error that cost them forty more wilderness years

Although Israel’s  strength was in the power of their God, David’s logic told him a nation’s strength lay in the size of its army. Ignoring the advice of Joab, he trusted his reasoning more than God and took a census of all who could “handle a sword.” As a result of his foolishness, Israel suffered a plague and 70,000 people died. Although leaning on our own understanding doesn’t necessarily result in tragedy, it frequently does.

When faced with a decision, like David, we consult advisors and friends, or turn to that font of information and misinformation—the Internet. Unfortunately, our human understanding is pitifully limited and our motives often suspect. Writing and debate classes taught me that a case can be made for any stand on an issue—whether it’s the right stand is an entirely different matter! It’s human nature to search deepest for information and advisors supporting our desires and to disregard as faulty anything that doesn’t support our position. Rehoboam did just that when he followed the advice of his greedy friends rather than Mosaic law and the godly advice of his father’s advisors. When he leaned on his own understanding, the kingdom divided.

We see just a portion of what is right in front of us but, in just one glance, God sees the whole picture—the past, present, and future. While our flawed understanding of God and His plan isn’t a requirement for obedience to Him, our trust is! The first part of today’s verse tells us to trust in the Lord—which is what Adam, Eve, and the rest should have done! Rather than lean on our own understanding or that of other flawed humans, we must turn to the true giver of wisdom—God—and His book of wisdom—the Bible.

“I wish I knew what to do!” we exclaim. While I can’t tell anyone what to do, I can tell everyone what not to do—don’t lean on your own understanding!

This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. [1 Corinthians 1:25 (NLT)]

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WHAT CAN PEOPLE DO TO ME?

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

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While 21st century Christians might not recognize the source of the two verses quoted in Hebrews 13:5-6, the recipients of that epistle certainly did. As Jews who converted to Christianity, they were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. The first verse (found in Deuteronomy 1:6 and 8), were relayed by Moses to all of Israel and then specifically to Joshua. After Moses’ death, God personally made the same promise to Joshua in Joshua 1:9.

The second verse cited can be found in Psalms 118:6 and 56:4 and 11. While we don’t know who authored Psalm 118, we know that Psalm 56 was penned by David and was about running from Saul and being seized by Philistines in Gath. Any Hebrew in Paul’s time would know these quotes and the full context in which they were used.

Rather than facing battle with the Canaanites, fleeing from Saul’s army, or being in the hands of the enemy, the original readers of this epistle were new believers who faced persecution from both Rome and their fellow Jews. Having already endured public ridicule, beatings, imprisonment, excommunication from their synagogues, confiscation of their property, and flight from their homes, yet another wave of persecution loomed on the horizon at the time this epistle was written. Discouraged and disheartened, these new Christians were losing heart. Fearful, many contemplated abandoning their belief in Jesus and returning to Judaism.

Wanting to prevent them from apostasy, the epistle’s author encouraged these Jewish converts to remain steadfast in their new faith. Rather than disparaging Judaism, he fortified their faith by showing how Hebrew Scripture pointed the way to the Messiah and how Jesus fulfilled its Messianic promises. He explained that Jesus was superior to the Levitical priesthood, that His sacrifice was better than any required by the Law, and that the new covenant was better than the old. It is when encouraging his readers to stay strong in the faith that the letter’s author refers to these two Old Testament verses.

The last part of the second quote asks, “What can mere people do to me?” Clearly, people had done a great deal of harm to those Hebrew Christians in the past and worse soon would follow. Moreover, just as Christians were persecuted in the 1st century, they continue to be persecuted in parts of the world today. The epistle’s author, however, wasn’t delusional; he knew the people to whom he wrote were not safe from harm at the hands of their fellow man! A closer look at the full verse never says Christ’s followers won’t suffer. Hebrews’ author was telling those new Christians not to be afraid because God was beside them; his words are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. His confidence came from knowing that our lives and future are in the hands of a God who loves us and has pledged Himself to us.

No matter how dire the circumstances, we aren’t alone. While our adversaries are mere mortals, standing beside us is God and His love for us outweighs the hatred of men. In the end, all of the adversities and suffering of this world pale in comparison to the resurrection blessings that await us. The worst thing people can do is kill our bodies. No person, however, can touch our souls!

Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:28-31 (NLT)]

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ARE WE READY? – Advent 2022

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting, “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. The Lord has spoken!” [Isaiah 40:3 (NLT)]


Yesterday was the third Sunday in Advent – the church season of preparation leading up to Christmas. Back in the 4th century, Advent was a 40-day season spent in penance, prayer and fasting in preparation for the baptism of new Christians on Epiphany (January 6). On that day, the church celebrated the gifts of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and His first miracle at Cana. By the 6th century, Advent was tied to the promised second coming of Jesus but, by the Middle Ages, Advent was tied to the celebration of Jesus’ first arrival and Christmas. Today, Advent is a time the Christian church commemorates Christ’s first coming while anticipating His second. It’s a time to prepare our hearts and minds both for Christmas, when Jesus came as a suffering servant and arrived in a manger, and for Christ’s return, when He will come as the conquering King who makes all things right.

Indeed, most of us use the four weeks of Advent as a time of preparation, but for what? Rather than readying our hearts for Christ, we’ve probably been busy making lists and checking them twice, searching for the best deals on line, decorating our homes and yards, trimming the tree, going to or hosting parties, making travel arrangements, baking holiday treats, planning menus, wrapping packages, addressing Christmas cards, and standing in line at Fed Ex or the post office, all of which have little to do with that first Christmas when God came into our chaotic world and even less to do with anticipating His glorious return.

Last night, after lighting the candles of hope and peace on our Advent wreath, my husband and I lit its third candle—the shepherd’s candle of joy. Admittedly, even though we’re having a relatively quiet Christmas, I felt more stress than hope, peace, or joy. I had allowed the preparations for this holiday keep me from focusing on Jesus!

Pause for a moment and remember how 2,000 years ago, the people of Judah longed for the promised Messiah. Recall how God recognized mankind’s need for a savior and answered their prayer that night in Bethlehem. That helpless baby in the manger, the infant who needed to be fed and burped and changed, was God incarnate!

As Christians in the 21st century, we long for Messiah’s return and, someday, God will make good on that promise, as well. As we remember Christ’s first coming, let us look forward to His return—a time when peace and justice will prevail and there will be no “death or sorrow or crying or pain.” We must never allow our holiday preparations keep us from preparing our hearts for the promises of hope, peace, joy and love that Jesus brings to our lives.

With only 13 days remaining until the 25th, we probably wonder if we’re ready for Christmas. Let’s get our priorities straight and make sure we’re ready for Christ!

The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for His own people – that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture. As the bells ring out the joys of Christmas, may we also be alert for the final trumpet that will announce His return, when we shall always be with Him. [Alan Redpath]

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. [Revelation 21:4 (NLT)]

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all. [Isaiah 11:6 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

Monday, when writing about stripping off the weight that keeps us from running the race God sets before us, I likened it to the actions of a triathlete. Whenever I attend one of my son’s triathlons, I’m part of an enormous crowd witnessing the event. Most are like me—trying to spot our loved ones’ swim cap bobbing in the water or their number as they speed past us on the course. Although we cheer, shake cowbells, carry posters, and yell encouraging words to all the racers, we are merely onlookers and few of us have any real idea of the challenges faced by each competitor. When reading of being surrounded by a crowd of witnesses during the race of faith in Hebrews 21:1, it first seems that these witnesses are like the crowd at a triathlon cheering on the athletes.

A look back at Hebrews 11, however, tells us those witnesses are not mere observers; they were participants in the same race! Having already crossed the finish line, they include such stellar names as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel, and even Rahab. Without specifically naming them, the author also refers to the trials of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Stephen, James, Jeremiah, and Elijah. Not limited to ancient Biblical witnesses, we can be inspired by the witness of people like William Tyndale, Eric Liddell, C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and Desmond Tutu. All of them encountered things like overwhelming challenges, torture, sickness, combat, beatings, oppression, poverty, hostility, and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. When they stumbled, they got back up and kept going. Having persevered through doubt, distress, and anguish, their lives affirm God’s absolute faithfulness to them. Their witness of faithful service to God can inspire us to shed anything weighing us down and to faithfully continue running the course God has given us.

There are, however, another set of witnesses to our journey of faith. In his first triathlon, my son was a novice who naively thought that combining three sports in one race couldn’t be that difficult. He made mistakes in his choice of clothing, equipment, nutrition, and training. Although my son finished that first race (with soggy bike shorts and blistered feet), it was just a sprint triathlon. He knew he needed the wisdom and support of other triathletes if he ever hoped to complete an international/Olympic triathlon. Joining a tri club, he attended clinics, meetings, and group workouts where he learned about each discipline within a triathlon. He gained guidance, coaching, training opportunities, encouragement, and friends with whom to train.

If we want to finish well in our faith journey, rather than joining a tri club, we need to join with other Christians. Just as his fellow triathletes witnessed to my son about their experiences, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who witness to us. Just as his teammates share their experiences, help him up when he falls, and encourage him when he struggles to keep going, our church family is there to encourage, guide, correct, and help us. Even though they haven’t completed their journey, they are well on their way to crossing the finish line. Like my son’s tri teammates, they’re more than mere onlookers; as living testifiers to a life of faith, they bear witness to us that running the race set before us is both doable and worthwhile.

By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. [Hebrews 11:34-34 (NLT)]

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OUR VOWS

For your Creator will be your husband; the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the God of all the earth. [Isaiah 54:5 (NLT)]

But you have been unfaithful to me, you people of Israel! You have been like a faithless wife who leaves her husband. I, the Lord, have spoken. [Jeremiah 3:20 (NLT)]


Throughout the Bible, marriage is often used as a metaphor for man’s relationship with God. His covenant with Israel is seen as a form of marriage, their unfaithfulness as adultery, and their alienation from God as divorce. The book of Hosea is a story of a prophet with an unfaithful wife that parallels God’s relationship with his unfaithful people. Some scholars say the entire Song of Songs is an allegory of God’s love for Israel or the church. In the New Testament, John the Baptist describes the Messiah as a bridegroom and Jesus refers to himself as the groom in wedding parables. Marriage was ordained by God and the marital bond illustrates God’s relationship with His people.

55 years ago, I promised to love, comfort, and honor my husband and to forsake all others, keeping myself only for him as long as I lived. I took him for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and to love and cherish until we were parted by death. In light of the many Biblical references to our spiritual marriage, I started to evaluate how I’ve done keeping those same vows with God.

Although I’ve done a pretty good job of doing all that I promised to my husband, I’ve not done as well with God. In times of health, wealth and contentment, I often forgot who made those good times possible. Moreover, I often was doubtful, distant, or angry with God in the times of sickness, scarcity, and sorrow. Since I frequently followed my peers, took the easy rather than right route, and listened to the enemy when I should have listened to Him, I’m not sure I even forsook all others for the Lord. Like a mistress or prostitute, I seemed to love Him for his gifts and often came to Him only because I wanted something more. While I can’t comfort our Almighty God, I’ve probably caused Him a fair amount of discomfort and grief. Fortunately, there was nothing about obedience in my wedding vows because obedience certainly hasn’t been my strong suit with the Lord. While I haven’t failed completely as a spiritual wife, I certainly haven’t kept our covenant relationship as well as I should have done.

On God’s part, like the perfect husband, He has been faithful and loved me in all circumstances. In spite of seeing me at my worst and knowing my every fault, God continued to love me. When I stopped believing in Him, He never stopped believing in me and, when I rejected him, He never rejected me. No matter how unfaithful I have been, God has remained faithful to me. He’s been loving and true to me at my sickest, poorest, and most contemptible. He gave me unconditional love when my love for Him seemed to depend on circumstances. Just as God told Hosea to redeem and love his adulterous wife, God has redeemed and loved me! The gift of His only Son to save my sorry soul is evidence of that.

At landmark anniversaries, people often remake their wedding vows. Our vows to God need to be retaken not just every ten years but every day. Merciful God, thank you for your unconditional and lavish love. Forgive us for being less than you deserve and thank you for giving us more than we could ever desire. In all circumstances, may we love, honor, cherish, and obey you, now and forever.

Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City” or “The Desolate Land.” Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight” and “The Bride of God,” for the Lord delights in you and will claim you as his bride. Your children will commit themselves to you, O Jerusalem, just as a young man commits himself to his bride. Then God will rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. [Isaiah 62:4-5 (NLT)]

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REJECTION

The Lord told Samuel, “Listen to everything the people are saying to you. They haven’t rejected you; they’ve rejected me. They’re doing just what they’ve done since I took them out of Egypt—leaving me and serving other gods. Listen to them now, but be sure to warn them and tell them about the rights of a king.” [1 Samuel 8:7-9 (GW)]
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Following Samson, the high priest Eli may have acted as a sort of judge. His sons, however, were scoundrel priests who treated God’s offering with contempt and slept with the women serving in the Tabernacle. When God’s judgment came down upon Eli and his sons, Samuel became the high priest and judge. While Samuel clearly was called by God to his role, his sons Joel and Abijah were not. Nevertheless, when Samuel grew old, he appointed his boys as judges. Like Eli’s sons, they were greedy rogues who took advantage of their position by accepting bribes and corrupting justice. Fed up with their wickedness, Israel’s elders met with Samuel. Wanting to be like the nations surrounding them and hoping to bring the tribes into a cohesive union, they demanded a king.

Rather than depend on God in time of crisis, Israel wanted to depend on human wisdom, power, and strength. Samuel cautioned them about all that came with a king: conscription of their sons and requisitioning of their crops along with demands for their daughters’ labor and a ten percent tax. Although amply warned by Samuel that they would beg for relief from the king they wanted, the people refused to listen. Allowing Israel to make choices (and learn from their consequences), God had Samuel appoint Saul as their king. Less than 120 years later, Samuel’s warning was fulfilled when they implored King Rehoboam for relief from excessive work and taxes; shortly thereafter, the kingdom divided.

Saul was exactly what the people wanted; he came from a wealthy and influential family, was tall and handsome, and even courageous. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a good leader or knowledgeable in spiritual matters. He had an inferiority complex and issues with impulse control, godly obedience, jealousy, and selfishness.

If I’d been in God’s position at this point in Israel’s history, I might have responded to them with an ultimatum of “it’s my way or the highway!” When they encountered difficulties with their plan, my cold response might have been, “You reap what you sow,” or “You wanted him, now you’re stuck with him!” I may have turned away from those who’d turned from me and stopped listening to those who’d stopped listening to what I had to say.

Fortunately for Israel (and us), I’m not God and that’s not how God responded. He never gave up on his people after their disobedience and rebellion in Eden, during the Exodus, or during the time of the judges and He didn’t this time either. After all, a promise is a promise and God promised the Israelites that He never would leave or forsake them! Samuel continued to serve the Israelites as their prophet, priest, and judge and David, a much better man than Saul, eventually became king. In spite of Israel’s continued failure to follow the Lord during the time of the kings, He gave them prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah who continued to speak God’s word to his people. He gave them John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Messiah and then He offered His only son, Jesus, as payment for our sins.

Mercifully, God doesn’t hold a grudge or respond in a snit when we ignore or disobey him. He didn’t abandon the Israelites and he won’t abandon us. When we reject Him, He doesn’t reject us; when we ignore Him, He doesn’t ignore us. When we take the wrong path, He continues to give us opportunities to turn back or offers new and better paths along the way.

Thank you, God, for never giving up on your rebellious children.

The Lord is compassionate, merciful, patient, and always ready to forgive. He will not always accuse us of wrong or be angry with us forever. He has not treated us as we deserve for our sins or paid us back for our wrongs. As high as the heavens are above the earth—that is how vast his mercy is toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west—that is how far he has removed our rebellious acts from himself. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. [Psalm 103:8-13 (GW)]

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